Is the Highland economy healthy?
Judging from tourist traffic, yes, it is.
Passing Glenfinnan last week at 10:30 in the morning, all three official car parks were full. Likewise, hotel and café car parks a mile away, plus lay-bys and tracks to nearby homes and fields. A perfect tourist storm was about to occur when the West Coast steam train crossed the viaduct made famous by Harry Potter’s Hogwarts Express triggering the creation of a thousand smartphone pictures amongst the waiting crowd. Combined with the renewed fascination for all things Jacobite in the wake of Outlander, moments like these are now so regular that online sites advise Glenfinnan visitors on “secret” parking opportunities.
It’s the same story on Skye where plans for toilets at the Fairy Pools car park in Glen Brittle have been redesigned following an “extraordinary increase in visitor numbers”.
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The toilet block was planned to cater for around 100,000 people in 2015 but the site dealt with 190,000 in 2018.
Queues, demand, visitors hungry for Highland experience but facilities lagging behind. It’s a familiar story – agreed. But it masks a much more serious mismatch of resources facing young local people.
On Skye, I met three Highland friends all living together in someone else’s second home. All three have jobs, but nowhere to go when the owner needs her house back. One 20-something lass makes a round trip of two hours a day to reach her job in Portree, and considers herself lucky. Her young colleagues must travel daily from temporary housing on the mainland.
One problem is the conversion of long-term leases into short-term lets for the holiday market. Astonishingly there are 300 properties on Airbnb on Skye alone. That’s contributed to a situation where NHS and teaching jobs can’t be filled, and beds for staff in cafés and hotels can’t be found – even in spare rooms. As a result, some restaurants are now self-service, some closed during a busy winter season and some are quietly for sale, also affected by the tin lid of Brexit, removing the supply of new hotel staff. Meanwhile two temporary council housing blocks in Portree are set to be demolished. They’re inhabited mostly by young folk working long hours in catering jobs who don’t know if they’ll be rehoused in Portree, or in emergency housing on the distant mainland at Kyle of Lochalsh. This hidden rural housing crisis was explored at the Community Land Scotland conference at Sabhal Mor Ostaig on Skye over the weekend. It seems pots of money for affordable housing have been given to councils by the Scottish Government over recent years. But there’s a stipulation the cash can only be drawn down by RSLs or Registered Social Landlords. Only a couple operate in the Highlands and Islands and must establish if there’s a real housing need before deciding to build. But folk in sparsely populated rural areas often don’t join the single “pan-Highland” waiting list. They don’t want to be assigned a house hundreds of miles away, and since they know no local homes are available there seems no point. The result is that when housing cash is finally available, it doesn’t go to areas where no-one’s on the waiting list.
Thus, the crisis of rural homelessness continues, housing cash remains unspent and the myth that young folk don’t want to live beyond the “bright lights” continues. So too the myth that 20-somethings don’t want to live on the land and that local kids only want to leave. Of course, some do.
But many more enterprising young Highlanders want to set up tourism, leisure and outdoor businesses, capitalising on the new Highland visitor surge. Others see the possibility of getting reasonably secure jobs in construction or public sector service provision as the population slowly expands.
But ironically, at this moment of economic opportunity, there is growing depopulation – the result of a chronic market failure in the supply of housing, land and genuinely local control over development plans. It could be different.
In most of Europe far more housing is self-built – that doesn’t mean folk physically humping beams, bricks and mortar (though that is pretty common on Eigg). It does mean small groups commissioning and controlling the construction of their own homes. Last weekend an audience of activists and housing professionals at an Archifringe event in Edinburgh heard how ten women in their 50s jointly purchased a plot of land in central Berlin and built a tenement fitting their own housing needs. In Norway, Germany and most European countries, this is how 60 per cent of homes are built – in Australia it’s 80 per cent. In the UK only 12 per cent of homes are self-built (probably less in Scotland.) So there could be a massive expansion of self-procurement. Instead Scotland continues our decades-long surrender to speculative volume house builders and over-stretched, slow-acting social housing agencies. It’s crazy. Self-procurement was almost designed for young folk living in rural areas like Skye. But the first insurmountable obstacle is lack of access to affordable land. The second is the vast uplift in land prices that accompanies the award of planning permission – something the Scottish Green Party’s Land Value Capture proposal would have redressed if the SNP and Tories hadn’t combined last week to vote it down. They also defeated an amendment to the Planning Bill which would’ve required planning permission for a change of use into short-term lets. The Scottish Government’s explanation for blocking these practical measures was frankly feeble. They say the council tax replacement might include a form of land tax and more limited restrictions on Airbnb were approved – proposed by a Tory MSP, revealed to have had nine meetings with short-term letting companies despite originally denying any contact. This isn’t good enough.
There appears to be no sense of urgency amongst quangos, councils and above all amongst SNP politicians about the near collapse in key structures of rural life, and the near total absence of genuinely affordable, secure housing in the remote areas where jobs exist and people want to live – not just towns. Pre-constructed, portable modular housing commissioned by community groups not just RSLs might be a short-term solution.
Does the Scottish Government have a better one, or indeed any strategy before parts of remote Scotland collapse?